Cook On Concord: Did I see the future, or just a show?

Along with approximately 8,500 others, I spent the evening of Dec. 9 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. The event may have been the largest and most publicized of the New Hampshire primary season.

Oprah Winfrey, television personality and media mogul, came to Manchester to endorse Illinois Senator Barack Obama and his quest for the presidency.

It was one of those events that reminds us the primary is such fun in addition to being serious. I do not know how many of my fellow McCain-leaning Republicans were there, but the crowd was enthusiastic, excited and upbeat.

The performance had been previewed both in Iowa and South Carolina where there were crowds of 14,000 and 25,000, respectively, the day before the New Hampshire event.

But there were a couple of the unique features in the New Hampshire event, thanks to the weather forecasters, as is their custom these days, who made an impending minor snowstorm into the “blizzard of the century” by repeating warnings about it every chance they could get their hands on a microphone. (As an aside, how many times do you think you need to see a television reporter standing at the Hooksett toll booth with cars rolling by in the snow to prove that it snows in New Hampshire in the winter?)

Also, as a challenge to the turnout, was the fact that the New England Patriots were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in a late afternoon game, a significant alternate attraction.

But when the doors opened at 6 o’clock, crowds wound around the building as ticketholders sought to get in and claim their seats on a first-come, first-served basis, at least largely. Special faithful supporters got to stand on the floor around the platform where the candidate and star would appear. (It was interesting that the stands behind the speakers, which ostensibly had the worst view, mysteriously filled up first. Television cameras should not see empty seats, after all.)

Gov. John Lynch greeted the crowd and reported that the Patriots had won (a safe applause line if there ever was one in such a setting), welcomed the group, extolled the virtues of Senator Obama, and left. Lynch has not endorsed a candidate and has pledged to remain neutral in this contest, although his wife, Dr. Susan Lynch, has endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

At the appointed hour, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama’s attractive, articulate and intelligent wife, came out to address the crowd. She has poise, eloquence and confidence and impressed everyone in the room. She extolled her husband’s virtues, praised New Hampshire, complimented, and then introduced, Ms. Winfrey.

The crowd then went wild as Oprah Winfrey came to the stage, reported that she was “outside of her comfort zone,” had never endorsed a presidential candidate before, normally would be home in her pajamas on Sunday night, and exclaimed how beautiful New Hampshire was. Given that it was night and she was in downtown Manchester, that last comment may have been an expression of faith over experience.

She went on to describe why she believes Obama’s candidacy is a new day in America, why he is unique in ways that made her endorse, and how she believed his life experience provides him with special qualifications for president not held by those with mere Washington experience.

She wound up the crowd and with perfect cadence introduced the candidate, after admitting that at this third event, she was “getting to like this.”

In what has to be a hard act to follow, Obama took the stage, shaking hands with folks and wielding a hand-held microphone. For half an hour or more, he paced the stage in an impressive performance of philosophy, personal experience and vigor. He was more forceful than in other speeches, which have a tendency to be cerebral, and was energized and impressive. Often, he summoned the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and other American leaders. He stressed a need for leadership of the United States, and not one party or another.

So what of this event? The common wisdom is that endorsements do not make presidents or affect voters much. Oprah Winfrey, however, drawing this kind of crowd and enthusiasm, could be an exception. She certainly seemed to help heighten the Obama excitement and undoubtedly created the occasion for such a large crowd to hear the candidate perform so well.

Maybe Winfrey can sell a candidate as she sells books, but most people think the candidate has to sell himself. What Obama showed at the Verizon arena is that he can do so. The argument that he should wait another eight years, since he is so young, was refuted both by Winfrey and Obama, who claimed the time for him was now.

On the way home, the group with whom I watched Senator Obama commented on how refreshing he is, how intelligent he is, and on his many talents.

Most striking, however, was the comment of one observer who said, “Maybe it wouldn’t be what it would say about Obama if he was elected. Maybe, just maybe, what would be important about an Obama election would be what it would say about us as Americans.”

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.